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Further Notes On Marketing For Indie Games

Some notes on being open, a micropostmortem of our debut title Determinance from a marketing perspective, and a run-down of what you can expect from this blog in the future...

Paul Kilduff-Taylor, Blogger

October 27, 2009

7 Min Read

Hello hello!

It's been remiss of me not to post here before - I apologise!

I'm planning to use this blog primarily as a place to discuss marketing for indie games. 

My recent-ish Gamasutra article on the subject got a huge response (thank you all!): it would seem that the need for studios to market themselves, rather than merely provide lubrication for a publisher's marketing machine, is an increasingly pressing one.

That means we're all in it together: from tiny one-man-band indies to full blown megastudios, we all need to think about our products, brands and strategies.

My plan is to keep updating this with quick notes, examples and tidbits from our own experience: I might collect these into a fuller article again at some point, but I know that I would value a quick and easy source of marketing inspiration, so I'd try and create one myself!

I'd like to stress again that I'm not coming at this topic from a position of great eminence: I'm new to this game and learning as I go.  For that reason, I look at winning strategies being used by other studios and try to emulate them: one of these strategies is "sharing".  I'll try to share anything useful I come across on my travels, in the hope that it will be helpful to other developers.

Wide open space

By the way, it seems that openness and collaboration are REALLY the most commercially successful strategy for developers - perhaps you might have some counter-examples - but from what I've seen, it definitely doesn't hurt to communicate.  Sales stats are things that people tend to keep closely guarded, but here are a couple of examples of how publishing them can really benefit your cause...

  • A pioneer of British indie-dom Cliffski shared his sales statistics for his title Democracy way back in 2006.  Cliffski is one of the most open business people I know: he'll happily give you his opinion on most things!  This is part of the reason why his recent game is doing so well out of the gate: he has high traffic to his sites because he's always publishing interesting content to draw in potential customers.

  • I saw recently that 2D Boy had released their sales stats for their "Radiohead-style" World of Goo promotion.  The indie community seems to agree that this sort of promotion only works for 1.) an older game with 2.) huge existing brand equity, but it's fantastic to see that it IS possible for a two-man operation to generate massive numbers with a much-loved game.  That's the indie dream, right?

Both Cliffski and 2D Boy have gained extra PR and goodwill through publishing their stats.  They know that people can use these as data points, they can reference them in posts such as this one: they're the cream on a succesful title.  Now, obviously both of these games are already a demonstrable success - publishing sales stats for a failure wouldn't necessarily have a great effect!  Having said that, some indies are willing to share stats and info about failed games in private in order to learn: if you're shrewd about it, getting help can often be a wise move.

A micropostmortem

Probably time for some disclosure then!  I've talked about our debut title Determinance in various places in the past: suffice it to say that it performed poorly in terms of direct sales, and the exact data wouldn't be much use to anyone.

What were the reasons for this failure?

1.)  We relied too much on others to market the game, and didn't take responsibility ourselves from Day 1

This was the core failure: we expected a certain level of marketing to come from the retail side which didn't materialise, and we weren't placed to react to this properly, having already moved on to other projects.

The game did (and does still have) a significant audience, so it would have been worth the increased effort at the time: I think we wrote it off too early and stopped investing time and money in marketing it.  This brings me on to...

2.)   Failure to deliver on concept

Marketing guru Kotler (who I'm sure to bring up constantly in these blogs) talks about the constant need to not only meet, but exceed customer expectation.

Determinance is a sword-fighting game where you have full analogue control of the player's sword using the mouse.  We DID NOT in any way anticipate that would create the following expectations:

a.)  You would be able to walk in the game

b.)  You would be able to dismember and behead characters in the game

c.)  The voice-acting would be AAA quality

Let's start at the beginning.  Determinance was always conceived as a flying sword-fighting game.  A games industry business development advisor responded like this upon hearing that concept: "Well I like flying, and I like sword-fighting...but that's a bit like saying, 'Hey, I like hotdogs, and I like chocolate, so here's a chocolate hotdog'".  We had created a chocolate hotdog.

Now, there are places in the world where, if you released a chocolate hotdog, people would buy it.  Our chocolate hotdog intrigued several companies and led to a very nice, mutually beneficial contract development agreement that sustained the company and enabled us to grow: this was Determinance's main legacy.  But let's say for the sake of argument that we cluttered up our concept and didn't manage expectations correctly.

Many people REALLY wanted to walk in the game.  They cared about that to a huge extent.  It was mind-boggling to us - it made literally no functional difference to the game whatsoever - but walking was the number one requested feature.  We could easily have found that out through some early focus testing.

The other two are more predictable technical issues, but they reminded us of the importance of aesthetics.  If you implicitly PROMISE something aesthetically (even if you don't realise you're doing this), then you have to deliver on it, otherwise customers will be unhappy.  I don't believe that there is any problem with the core gameplay of Determinance, which is where our focus was: it's a fun, competitive game which is easy to start playing and difficult to master.  The problem was that, as Alec Meer said in his PC Gamer review, it was poorly presented to the player.

My plan for Determinance now is to fix it up slightly, and effectively re-release it along with Frozen Synapse.  A certain group of gamers LOVE the game: they embrace the strangeness and adore it: increased traffic will bring an increased audience and I have better ideas of how to target them.  I'll talk more about this closer to the time, but I hope that this weird game will have a minor renaissance in the light of our newer, better title!

Getting the concept out there

So, my main "takeaway" (that always makes me feel hungry...) from Determinance was that we had to get our concept out there early in a strong way, then try to fulfil the expectations that it generated. 

[As I write this, I happened to flick back to David Edery's site and noticed that he too is harping on this theme  Encouraging!  Also I must use the very important-sounding term "value proposition" more to seem more clever...mental note...I think I got away with "brand equity" earlier, so probably best to leave it at that for today...hmm...]

This is what we're going to be doing next week at Gamecity when we unveil an early version of Frozen Synapse to the public for the first time.  It's a competitive tactical game, so we're running a competition.  It has a visually striking "tactical readout" aesthetic, so we're having it displayed on big screens and monitors.

Running a live event is something we've never done before, and it's something that indies are now being encouraged to do.  Preparing for it has been a personal challenge: I hope to share the results with you either here, or in a full-scale article on running low-budget promo events for indie games.  I'll let you know what went right and wrong: I'm intrigued to know myself!

If I survive, I'll be back soon...

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